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The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age

The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age

    Note taking is as ancient an art as any. There are hefty tomes on the subject of how to best capture and organize information in a swift and legible manner and courses devoted to the subject in colleges.

    And yet, the most popular suggestion in our Skribit widget , which you can use to suggest articles for Lifehack authors to write, is on the question of whether to use digital or traditional methods of note taking. It seems that the mountains of existent information haven’t yet caught up with the modern age, addressing traditional note-taking methods, but altogether bypassing digital note-taking technologies and techniques and assistance in deciding which method of note-taking is best for the individual.

    What do we want to take notes for?

    There are all sorts of reasons to take notes, and it’s important to first look to these reasons in deciding which particular method of note-taking is best for us in the modern age. Different note taking needs demand different note taking methods and the importance of each of these needs to each of us differs drastically. University students and freelance writers both tend to take notes for different reasons.

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    What might you need to take notes for? Here’s a few I thought of (feel free to add your own in the comments):

    • Ubiquitous capture—a note taking system to help you capture ideas, thoughts and important information any time, any where. Note taking to ensure you never forget.
    • Retaining information from lectures and seminars—you can’t take a lecture home like you can a book, but taking notes helps to offset the temporary nature of verbally delivered information.
    • Problem solving—note taking as a method of sorting out the flighty thoughts in your head with a more tactile medium.
    • Visualization—visualizing complex systems and concepts with the help of diagrams and sketches.

    While I’m sure I haven’t covered every conceivable reason to take notes, these are the things that come to mind as the most important, popular and common reasons for note taking.

    Digital methods of note taking

    Digital methods of note taking have grown in popularity over the last few years in particular. Applications like Evernote and OneNote have risen in popularity, with the former receiving enthusiastic reviews from many sites including this one and supporting many devices, including the iPhone. This makes it an excellent choice when it comes to ubiquitous capture.

    The ubiquity of cloud-supported, multi-platform applications is not the only advantage to digital note taking. Your notes become indexable and searchable, which is infinitely useful in itself. And I don’t know about you, but I can type way faster than I can write with a pen—that’s either a product of the age we live in or the product of working as a writer who pumps out thousands of words on my keyboard each day, I don’t know. But I’m guessing that most of you reading can type faster than you can write, too.

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    Also, as users of Evernote on the iPhone will know best, dropping photos of whiteboards, business cards, presenter’s slides and the like into your notes is superbly easy—with traditional methods, you have to write out every bit of info you want to keep.

    But digital note taking methods fall down in a few important areas; drawing diagrams, sketches and mind maps is usually impossible and where it is possible, by no means a pleasant experience. Feel free to drop me a link to an app that makes this sort of thing enjoyable, but I don’t believe such a thing exists. The obvious exception: tablet PCs. But nobody really wants to buy a computer that can take notes better than a laptop and do little else quite as well.

    Any sort of visualization is limited when it comes to digital note taking, and not just when it comes to diagrams, but the ability to fashion text in any format not based on the paragraph.

    Let’s go back to the list of reasons for note taking and see how digital note taking does:

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    • Ubiquitous capture—digital is a winner when it comes to ubiquity, though you’ll need a few fancy—and often expensive—devices to make that ubiquity true.
    • Retaining information from lectures—digital wins here. Most people can keep up with the presenter far more quickly with a laptop than with pen and paper.
    • Problem solving—sort of. Problem solving often requires non-linear thought, and thus non-linear expression, but you can still flesh an idea out in paragraph or bullet form.
    • Visualization—not really; you need specialist, expensive equipment such as a tablet PC or even a graphic artist’s tablet to make visualization as a function of note taking work.

    Traditional methods of note taking

    The good old pen and paper has served humanity well for… well, a damn long time. Go back a bit further and you’ve got papyrus, wax, chiseled stone and all sorts of things. The reason most note taking literature panders to such methods is simply that such methods have existed for a long time. Nobody brought a laptop to take notes in a lecture ten years ago.

    And while it can be slow, unless you learn skills such as shorthand usually only learned by journalists and professional note takers, and can’t be searched or snap an image in between blocks of text (without going home and printing one out and taping it in, which sort of defeats the purpose), it is flexible. You’ve got a blank sheet of paper before you, and you can mark it however you wish.

    You can format text in strange and unusual ways, including the famous Cornell method of note taking, diagram, sketch and visualize in any manner you wish without obstructing. Many fans of paper-based note taking call it liberating, and not without reason. This is why the Moleskine has become an icon of frappucino-sipping hipster culture; those guys hate to be restricted.

    There’s one other reason many people love taking their notes on paper. It’s never mentioned in a practical context, but I think it’s an important point to make. It’s tactile. Some people feel they can connect with their words more easily than they can with text on a screen when they create those words with a pen. And if that helps you process information, that’s great.

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    How do traditional methods of note taking line up with our list of reasons to take notes?

    • Ubiquitous capture—there’s no reason you can’t take a notebook with you everywhere, but there’s no denying that ubiquitous capture is far more easily achieved with digital methods (unless the idea to be captured is visual in nature). Packing a phone in your pocket is easy, taking a laptop everywhere is second nature for many, but lugging around a pen and pad isn’t always desirable.
    • Retaining information from lectures—if you can write quickly, write shorthand, or you’re good at really truncating information on the fly so you can get it down before the lecturer moves on, note taking in lectures is totally doable with pen and paper. But I wouldn’t do it; my hand would cramp up long before I caught up with what the speaker was going on about.
    • Problem solving—you’ve got free control of the page which is always helpful when it comes to non-linear thinking; map it out however you like. Writing with a pen also forces you to slow down a bit more, which is much better for processing information and coming up with ideas than the fast-paced world of typing. Paper wins when it comes to problem solving.
    • Visualization—digital note taking just can’t match pen and paper for visualizing concepts, whether it’s a diagram or sketch, or a good old mind map. Maybe one day things will change in this department, but it’s a clear win for paper.

    The verdict?

    The verdict is up to you.

    Note taking is one of those things where the best course of action is totally dependent on what you need to do. Do you need to sketch ideas for your graphic design job? Go paper. Do you need to keep track of shopping lists, things you’ve got to do tomorrow and ideas for articles? Go digital. Need the benefits of both? Then go with both.

    The pros and cons are lined up in a row for you here—the decision, I hope, is much easier than it was before!

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on February 13, 2020

    What Is Speed Reading and How to Successfully Learn It

    What Is Speed Reading and How to Successfully Learn It

    Too much to read, too little time! Don’t you wish you could read faster without compromising your knowledge intake? This is where a valuable learning technique comes to the rescue: speed reading.

    Speed reading is the top skill to learn in 2020. Read on to find out all about this amazing technique!

    What Is Speed Reading?

    On average, an adult can read somewhere between 200 to 300 words per minute. With speed reading, you can read around 1500 words per minute.[1] Yes, that sounds impossible, but it is true.

    In order to understand how this skill works, you first need to know how the reading process works inside a human’s brain.

    The Reading Process

    The first step is for the eyes to look at a word. This “fixation” on every word takes around 0.25 seconds.

    Next, the eye moves on to the following word. It takes 0.1 seconds for the brain to move from one word to the next. This is called “saccade.”

    Usually, a person reads 4 to 5 words or a sentence at once. After all the fixations and saccades, the brain goes over the entire phrase again in order to process the meaning. This takes around half a second.

    All in all, this allows the average person to read 200 to 300 words in a minute.

    Speeding up the Process

    The concept of speed reading is to speed up this process at least 5 times. Since the saccade period cannot be shortened any further, speed reading emphasizes quicker fixations.

    To accomplish this, scientists recommend that the reader skips the subvocalization: when the readers actually say the word in their mind, even when reading silently.

    Basically, speed reading is the technique of only seeing the words instead of speaking them silently.

    Do not confuse this with skimming. When a reader skims through a text, they skip the parts that their brain considers to be unnecessary.

    You may skip important information in this process. Moreover, skimming does not allow the brain to retain what has been read.

    Why Speed Read?

    Speed reading is not just quick, but also effective. This skill saves a lot of of time without sacrificing information.

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    Also, it has been proven to improve memory. The brain’s performance improves during speed reading, which allows the reader to remember more information than before.

    Since speed reading stabilizes the brain, the information is processed faster and more efficiently.

    Believe it or not, this technique leads to improved focus, too. As the brain receives a lot of information during speed reading, there is far less chance of distraction. The brain focuses solely on the job at hand.

    Since the brain is, after all, a muscle, the process of speed reading acts as an exercise. Just like the rest of your muscles, your brain needs exercise to grow stronger, too.

    A focused brain means improved logical thinking. As your brain gets used to receiving and organizing so much information so quickly, your thinking process will become faster.

    As soon as a problem is thrown at you, your brain will quickly put two and two together. You will be able to retrieve stored information, figure out correlations, and come up with new solutions, all within seconds!

    Still not convinced? Read 10 Reasons Why You Should Learn Speed Reading

    Greater Benefits

    With a healthier brain, you can expect better things in other parts of your life, too. A boost in self-esteem is just one of them.

    As you begin to understand information at a faster pace, you will also begin to figure out more opportunities all around you.

    With the ability to deeply understand information in a shorter period of time, your confidence levels will quickly grow higher.

    Moreover, all the aforementioned benefits will relieve you of stress. You will manage your readings in lesser time, your brain will be healthier, and you will feel so much better about yourself.

    With all these advantages, your emotional well-being will be healthier than ever. You’ll feel less stress since your brain will learn to tackle problems efficiently. Speed reading will lead to a relaxed, tension-free lifestyle!

    How to Learn to Speed Read

    Speed reading is a superpower. Fortunately, unlike other superpowers, this one can be learned!

    There are different techniques that can be used to master this skill. Opt for the one that best suits your learning style.

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    1. The Pointer Method

    The person who is credited for popularizing speed reading, Evelyn Wood, came up with the pointer method. It is a simple technique in which the reader uses their index finger to slide across the text that they’re reading.

    As the finger moves, the brain coherently moves along with it. It is an effective technique to keep the eyes focused where the finger goes without causing any distraction.

    Readers have a tendency to back-skip. The pointer method prevents this from happening, thereby saving at least half the reading time.

    2. The Scanning Method

    In this technique, the reader’s eyes move along one part of the page only. This can be the left or right side of the text but is usually the center since that is the most convenient.

    Instead of pacing through the entire text from left to right, the vision shifts from top to bottom.

    This method involves fixation on keywords such as names, figures, or other specific terms. By doing so, the saccade time is minimized.

    3. Perceptual Expansion

    Generally, a reader focuses on one word at a time. This technique, on the other hand, encourages the brain to read a chunk of words together. In doing so, this method increases the reader’s peripheral vision.

    Here’s the thing: even though the fixation time remains the same with perceptual expansion, the number of words that the eyes fixate on increases.

    So basically, the brain receives 5 times more information within the same amount of time.

    This technique is the hardest to master and takes the most time to learn. You’ll need help from speed reading tools in order to practice the perceptual expansion method.

    However, once you master it, this technique will offer you the fastest reading pace with the maximum knowledge intake.

    The Best Speed Reading Apps

    The easiest tool to aid any process in any part of life these days is your smartphone.

    You can use mobile applications to learn speed reading on the go. It has been proven that regularly practicing speed reading is the fastest way to learn this skill. [2]

    Here are a few great options to look into:

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    1. Reedy

    If you own an Android smartphone, you can download Reedy to your mobile. Otherwise, get the chrome extension on your laptop to enjoy speed reading with Reedy.

    This app trains readers to read faster by displaying words one by one on the screen. Instead of having to go through lines or long texts, Reedy prepares the user to focus on one word at a time.

    Although this isn’t an effective method to learn speed reading long texts, it is a great way to start.

    Once your brain gets used to the idea, you can shift to another app to train speed reading sentences or longer texts.

    2. ReadMe!

    Whether you’re an android or iOS user, you can take advantage of the ReadMe! application. This app even comes with some e-book options to practice speed reading on.

    Start by choosing your desired font size, color, layout, etc. Other than that, there are different reading modes for the user to choose from.

    If you want to practice reading sentence by sentence or in short paragraphs, you can choose the focused reading mode.

    The beeline reader mode changes the color of the text to guide the eye to read from the beginning to the end at a certain pace.

    Lastly, there is the spritz mode in which the app focuses on chunks of words at once. This controls the reader’s peripheral vision. However, this mode is not fully available in the free version of the app.

    3. Spreeder

    Spreeder is available on both iOS and Android. However, users may also gain benefits from Spreeder’s website. This application lets the reader paste in any text that they would like to speed read.

    Starting off at a rather low speed, the app flashes words one by one. Gradually, as the user becomes more comfortable, the speed increases.

    Slowly, the user is trained to speed read without having to skip any words.

    This app is different from the rest because it tracks the user’s reading improvements, recording the overall reading time and speed.

    The progress and improvement are tracked in order to motivate the user to perform even better.

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    Adjustable settings, such as the speed of the text, background color, etc. are in the control of the user.

    The Controversy Surrounding Speed Reading

    Truthfully, speed reading does sound too good to be true. It’s hard to believe that it is humanly possible to attain such a fast pace in reading without compromising the quality of information you receive.

    Perhaps as a result, there are people who do not trust the process of speed reading. They believe that when you read through a text at such a high speed, you cannot comprehend the information successfully.

    According to these people, your brain is unable to process information at the speed that you’re reading, and so, they regard speed reading as problematic.

    It is true that speed reading will be of no use if you do not understand the text you’re reading, no matter how quickly you did it.

    Similarly, if you were to read slowly and still not retain or understand the information you read, that would be useless, too.

    However, there a few factors to consider here. When reading at a normal pace, there is enough time in between every step of the process for the brain to get distracted.

    Conversely, speed reading leaves behind no time for the brain to focus on something else. It is unlike skimming. No part of the text is skipped, which means that the brain receives every single bit of information.

    Conclusion

    Keeping all of this in mind, speed reading cannot be labeled a hoax or a failure. Science has backed up this technique, and numerous readers have been using this skill to improve their learning ability.

    At the end of the day, it is your decision whether or not you want to trust this process.

    However, if you decide to take advantage of the opportunities speed reading provides, you will find a world of possibilities opening up to you.

    We live in a fast-paced world. Consuming information faster will help you keep up with that pace and find further success.

    Speed Read Like a Pro!

    Featured photo credit: Blaz Photo via unsplash.com

    Reference

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